While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Actor’s Instrument
“It often appears the actor has all the fine, subtle, deep feelings necessary to his part and yet he may distort them beyond recognition because he conveys them through crudely prepared external physical means. When the body transmits neither the actor’s feelings to me nor how he experiences them I see an out of tune, inferior instrument, on which a fine musician is obliged to perform. The poor man! He struggles so hard to transmit all the shadings of his emotions. The stiff keys of the piano do not yield to his touch, the un-piled pedals squeak, the strings are jangled and out of tune. All this causes an artist great effort and pain.” – Konstantin Stanislavsky
I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps
I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you
I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps
– George Harrison
Just as a musician’s instrument is their piano or violin, the actor’s instrument is themselves. Therefore, a keen awareness and consciousness must be developed to finely tune your instrument. The actor must know how to intuitively and insightfully navigate themselves emotionally, physically, vocally, psychologically. All of these attributes contribute to the exciting, unpredictable, multi-dimensional emotions that actors should give themselves the permission to express. Lee Strasberg believed that Stanislavsky was well aware of the many problems actors had, in that they would often be experiencing something meaningful but often confused in that they were not always capable to express their experience to others. You as an actor and artist must have the utmost respect for your instrument, and be given the right to express all of your needs, wants, desires and passions.
“It should be noted that in all the performing arts except acting, the artist has an instrument outside of himself which he learns to control. The instrument that the musician works with — the piano, the violin — does not create mental or emotional responses of its own. Regardless of the emotional state of the performer, the instrument remains objectively calm and capable.”
“The actor is both the artist and the instrument — in other words, the violinist and the violin. One can imagine what would happen if the violin or piano started to talk back to the performer, complaining that it did not like to be struck in a particular way, that it did not respond to certain notes, that it was embarrassed at being touched sensually by a performer. This interaction between the artist and his instrument is precisely what transpires when the actor performs. His body, his mind, his thoughts, his sensations, his emotions are separated from the objective intentions. The Method, therefore, is the procedure by which the actor can open control of his instrument, that is, the procedure by which the actor can use his affective memory to create reality on stage.” – Lee Strasberg
As discussed in To Be or Not To Be, through including and accepting the moment-to-moment reality, the actor can at least be free to express their inner life, rather than compensating, redirecting, covering-up and short-circuiting their expression, or imposing a state of behavior to give the impression that they are more comfortable than they actually are. Expressing the inner life allows the actor the freedom to create the necessary reality rather than impose it.
“He must irreverently follow his impulses wherever they lead. By approaching the obligations of the material in this manner, he is actually functioning as he would if the circumstances were really happening. In that the case, the instrument takes care of itself. That is to say, the normal instinctive human response occurs, thereby fulfilling the material organically with dimension and unpredictability.”
“Being is a state you work to achieve. To BE, you must find out what you feel and express it totally. Let one impulse lead to another without intellectual editing, including all the life that is going on – the interruptions, interferences and distractions. These elements should all be included in the behavior. Do no more or less than you feel. Being is the only place from which you can create organic reality.”
Eric Morris – No Acting Please
Truthful work derives from the actor creating and experiencing that which the character is experiencing. Therefore, an actor can have a craft or means to create any stimulus or object, anything that is intended to promote the behavior and experience they are obligated to feel. However, some of the most prevalent occurrences actors experience in class, on set or stage, are the many obstacles, inhibitions and fears that obstruct them from creating, experiencing, and expressing the life of the character. Although awareness of the problem or inhibition is often noted or made aware of, the alleviation and solutions are not always so easily mitigated. There are plenty of teachers or gurus who even go as far as to assign some pseudo-psychology as the basis for the actor’s instrumental problems, or only go as far as to point out what the actor is incapable of, without supplying a means to remedy the issue. Alternatively, there are some very intelligent and versed teachers who are able to very concisely point out the reasons, causes, and even means to alleviate or overcome the many obstacles of experience and expression. A significant gap in The Method existed for some time due to it’s lack of dealing with the actor’s instrument.
Creatures of Habit
Recently, I attended a program at a well-known Broadway theater in New York. An actress, talented and trained for sometime, expressed how much difficulty she had when she felt she could not “go there” or experience the emotional life demanded of her in a particular scene: the assassination of her husband and the trauma that she consequently experiences. While observing this actress, several important tendencies, patterns and habits caught my attention that interfered with her freedom of expression. Anytime this actress was called upon to respond to a teacher, she suddenly straightened her posture, composed herself and very politely and charmingly with a smile would give her best answer to the question posed. When she was to work on stage, she often carried herself in the same manner, controlled, aware of herself, sharply focused and attentive on the task at hand, a tension in her muscles and well thought out movements. She became submissive and seemed to immediately transform into the “good student” role.
These mannerisms and patterns told me much about this actress and the way she had been conditioned. Through our experiences we develop habits naturally to survive. These habits serve as defense mechanisms and serve a purpose that allow us to function in the world without succumbing to the discomfort and pain we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. We learn to desensitize ourselves to the many stimuli around us such as noise pollution, lights, people, etc… We all develop completely dependent on care-takers for survival beginning at birth. As babies, we moan, cry, scream for food, nourishment, comfort, attention, etc… Meticulously, we come to understand what works and what doesn’t and out of this, personality develops. We discover how to survive by doing what worked for us previously. Even if habits no longer work, we all demand to try the same thing over and over again to get what we want. Unknown to us, our ego and personality implement ways to protect ourselves and ensure survival. When life gets too threatening, fight or flight kicks in, and we immediately apply those habits of old that worked for us only so long ago, and yet, still they are employed. These habits and patterns are useful as they protect us from being vulnerable in the world. As we grow older, we develop more habits to protect ourselves when we experience painful emotions, such as rejection: humiliation, abandonment, inadequacy, embarrassment, guilt or shame.
When the actress mentioned before was on the spot, she exhibited the same patterns and habits each time, different than how she would behave in other social settings or private conversation. I would assume of her, that if in private, she could experiences vulnerability, hurt, loss, abandonment, all of which was required for her to feel in the piece and yet she expressed feeling very inhibited on stage. Her instrumental issue in this area was not an avoidance of these feelings. She was not necessarily protecting herself as other actors may from the pain of the emotions; she expressed a willingness but always failed in the experience. Her problem emanated and occurred only when she was being watched, alone on stage.
She was overwhelmed by the amount of attention, self-consciousness, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of disappointing herself and being inadequate as an actress, imperfection. Her behaviors reflected a mentality and need to present herself in the best light possible: polite and likable, a well spoken articulation in her voice to exude a confidence to others, body language that although stern, also showed power and leadership capabilities. Although these minute decisions were instant, they were also most likely second nature to her, and subconscious. They all provided a purpose that made her feel in control of the situation. She had to be in control of the situation so that she could fend off the perceived threats that consumed her mind; also subconsciously, while her main focus was on the task at hand. The threats were the fears mentioned above and perhaps emotions that could potentially, in the actress’s mind, translate to others as weakness and being imperfect. Her need to be in control was to ensure that she did nothing careless or mistakenly that would cost her the consequences of feeling rejection, embarrassment, humiliation, feeling inadequate as a person or an actress. She needed to be perfect, to not fail, and therefore appear to feel better than she actually felt.
Nature vs Nurture
These fears are all very common for the actor, to which the actor often imposes a fictitious or pseudo-behavior that falsely promotes a presence of being better off than they actually are. Additionally, once the actor expresses the text they are “acting” because they have been acting the entire time through covering up and imposing something that has nothing to do with what they are actually feeling (Refer to Being blog). Often, actors fall into habitual traps of acting that take on many different forms. Our habits in life will follow us to the stage. These are behaviors and decisions that are hard-wired in the brain. These habits can be dismantled, new ones can created in which new synapses or connections are made within the brain.
The lack in confidence and self-trust of the actress mentioned earlier, both in her instrument and craft, her fears of being inadequate are what obstructed her from taking the necessary risks to experience the life of the character. The scene in which she must feel great pain from loss is of course daunting and not an emotion one looks forward to feeling, but an actor understands this may be required from time to time. She actually expressed a willingness to feel this experience of grief, just failure in its manifestation. It was very obvious what her issue was when she expressed the nature of the scene and paired with her habits, mannerisms, body language and patterns. The scene of grief from loss of a husband required her to be helpless and in disbelief, a happening in which she would have no control over. Her fear was losing control. Losing control for her was too frightening and too overwhelming. Everything about her was controlled, even her folded hands in her lap when called upon that had nothing to do with what she was feeling, but again, a covering up of what she was feeling. She spent so much energy to control her behavior and how she wanted to be perceived that surrendering this habit would be too costly and dangerous.
Part of the investigation for an observer of instrumental habits would be to understand where these habits began and implement ways to diminish their restrictive attributes. If one could introduce to the actress an effective means (to which there are many remedies) to eradicate her habitual need for control then she would begin to break the habit. This would then lead to the allowing of experiencing the moment and responding to it as it affects in her the moment, rather than controlling how she would choose to let the moment affect her and choosing how to respond to it so as to not lose control. She would be freer to act and express that which she was experiencing on a deeper level. The actress could work in areas of anti-leadership and impulsivity, learning to trust what she is feeling and follow where her impulses takes her. She could work in areas of being irresponsible, uninteresting, adapting to accepting imperfection and rejection so as to eliminate the fear which restricts from the honest expression of what she is actually feeling: inadequate.
While this instrumental obstacle in this circumstance stopped the actress from experiencing the emotional life of this scene, this same issue would also have a trickle-down effect elsewhere in her craft as well. Her behavioral habits would make it very difficult for her to fulfill roles of characters who act out in abandon, free-spirits, charisma, risk-taking personalities. Some actors would relent and say their work therefore must end at this juncture. This is a self-limiting decision and also a poor one artistically that also limits professional opportunity. The artistic value of what the material is asking for can bring such beautiful opportunities, growth and evolution to the actor’s work and their overall life. A new threshold is established to allow and include new experiences in life to be enjoyed rather than avoided for the same reasons the actress avoids the experiences on the stage. In other words, actors can bring their life to the stage, if willing, as well bring their art to their life when they leave the stage.
I was asked to comment on the actress’s exercise after she had expressed her inhibitions and blocks that she felt. I commented that she was very in control of the entire exercise that was given to her, never letting the exercise surprise her or even let in what was happening to her (i.e. her intellectual decisions were blocking her from feeling in the moment). She immediately remarked, “I am always aware of what it is that I am doing, ALWAYS.” This hyper-awareness of course was again another manifestation of the strict attention she paid to her actions, thoughts and behaviors to ward off the fear and perceived consequences she felt were a reality. I say “perceived” because although the fears are understandable, she was in a safe and supportive environment with others who were asked to take the same risks. Everyone was encouraging and kind, it was an atmosphere that was conducive to an artist’s well-being. The exercise was actually very safe in that it presented very little if any negative emotional aspects. By “negative” I mean possibly painful to experience but not negative in of itself as emotions are just emotions and we as people tend to value them as good or bad. We can see how these habits form and how strong they are, and that despite being in a nourishing atmosphere for the artist, we still have habits that work for us when the prior threats of long ago are no longer present.
Her habit of constantly watching herself on stage is a also a detriment that would prevent the her from being involved with her work or her partners on stage. If her attention is concentrated on how “we” as the audience are taking her in, then her energy and thoughts are expended towards that and she cannot be allowed to discover what can be created or taken in on stage. She will be too consumed with how others are perceiving her versus creating something herself to perceive that would carry her through the piece. Lee Strasberg emphasized how the actor on stage must be thinking on stage, not just imitating to be having thoughts, but actually having them…
“Many actors believe that they truly think on the stage. They do not accept the premise that their thought is tied only to the memorized lines of dialogue.”
“It does not matter so much what the actor thinks, but the fact that he is really thinking something that is real to him at that particular moment. The make-believe thinking that may coincide with the play is not real enough, though it may be sufficient to fool the audience. This is what we sometimes mean when we refer to acting as being only ‘indication.” – Lee Strasberg
Special Thanks to William Shatner, Le Big Boss Productions
“The reality is no one can tell you how to act.”
“The concept of “Being” as opposed to “Acting” is Eric’s (Morris) focus here.”
“What is described has worked in some way for one actor or another. The Method is, “If it works, use it.” – Jack Nicholson (Foreword: No Acting Please by Eric Morris)
Our Life In Art
The instrument of an actor, artist or human-being is very delicate. Knowing one’s self and having someone who can understand how each unique instrument responds or develops will substantially aid in it’s development and freedom of expression. This process is one that takes time, rather than just randomly attempting to conjure up emotions or experiences in which a vague or unhealthy indulgence results. The more the actress revealed of herself, the clearer it became where her habits had developed. This information would be essential if she were to understand why her instrument responded the way it did, where its struggles in expression emanated from. One afternoon, she mentioned she was possibly A-sexual, rarely had felt attraction, intimacy, and never had known what it felt like to be in love, rarely felt joy or pleasure. She expressed not feeling anything much at all often. Several weeks later, the actress expressed that her sister had autism and for much of her life she had played caretaker to her. Her sister had severe difficulty in responding to the world and therefore needed her sister’s assistance.
The actress admitted great pain, guilt and hardship in how sorry she felt for her sister. Now this habit of feeling so responsible and always having control began to make more sense. This information and the way the actress shared it, revealed to me that perhaps her own difficulty in responding to the world emanated from her deep-seeded guilt and difficulty caring for her sister and the role she took on in relation to her sister. She had perhaps, unconsciously, decided that if she were to experience joy, pleasure, happiness, she would be abandoning her sister in a way and consequentially would experience an overwhelming amount of guilt and shame for being able to feel the basic feelings of life that her sister was not afforded to experience. Perhaps she would perceive herself as a bad-person or bad-sister. In order to cope, she herself had to find ways to survive with this hardship. She was possibly vicariously living through her sister or ponder what it was like to be in her shoes, so as to be there for her through support and empathy. Of course she would feel that it would be unfair to enjoy elements of life that her sister could not. However, blaming herself is what would actually be unfair as it certainly was no fault of the actress’s that her sister was born with this hardship. I then saw a direct-correlation and similarities in how the actress would conduct herself on stage and the very significant and present reality with her sister.
Both circumstances entailed the actress dealing with some sort of avoidance of overwhelming guilt, not being good-enough, fleeing from feelings of inadequacy and shame, and mostly, an incredible weight of responsibility. Could this relationship with her sister and the feelings paired with it, cause the actress to fear others seeing these insecurities as if worn on her sleeve? Did she over-identify with this relationship to her sister and partially shape the woman she became to be or to believe she was not allowed to experience life? If I were working with her, I would now know which area to venture into to help her repair the instrumental difficulties. I would ask the actress to take on the roles mentioned before, those she may have trouble with: irresponsibility, taking her due, counting her accomplishments, entitlement, giving herself permission to experience joy, hurt, pleasure and pain, rather than her habit of limited-experience deriving from avoidance of feelings. I would predict that these areas would free her immensely and she would conquer some of these obstructions in her expression and also a domino effect in walking through additional doors of experience.
Other classes and teachers may not work this way, and it takes incredible dedication to understanding behavior to implement profound means of transformation. Some actors work with their material, certain roles they feel a separation from, and will work to bridge the difference. There are many means and exercises actors employ to do this. I believe however that it is necessary to deal with the instrument and such work expedites growth and constructively evolves the actor. I believe that Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg, Richard Boleslavsky, Vakhtangov, and many others worked passionately in this area.
“His instrument responds not only to the demands of the actor’s will, but also to all those accumulated impulses, desires, conditioning, habits, and manners of behavior and expression. They are so automatic that the actor is not aware of them and is, therefore, unable to deal with them. The extent to which unconscious habits of thought, feeling, and behavior influence the actor during the actual process of acting still demands greater recognition and clarification.” – Lee Strasberg
The work of Eric Morris, a very well-renowned American acting teacher of The Method, has incredibly and impressively evolved specific means for actors to develop their instrument and therefore has evolved the work of the actor. Many teachers and classes spend no time on the actor’s instrument, and also have no knowledge of how to deal with it. Sometimes these classes constantly suggest what character would be good for that actor to play in the sense that they may resemble that character in some way. While this may be a good way to understand casting or an actor’s type, too much of this will be restricting of the actor’s potential range and fabric.
Actors can choose to deal with the human-condition very honestly; as the job is to bring truthful life to the stage. There is no need for the actor’s instrument to be a 5-ton elephant in the room. This absence of cohesion between actor and craft can often leave the actor feeling hopeless and reducing their joy in the work. “Going there” is a well-used term referring to the actor’s willingness and courage to confront the parts of life that people run from everyday. The courage and bravery of approaching these aspects of life often result in the demise of difficulty, and more so, bring hope, strength, and change to others.
Special Thanks to William Shatner, Le Big Boss Productions
“Stanislavsky was well aware of this actor’s problem of expression — that is, what the actor conveys to the audience. This is why he divided his book The Actor Works (An Actor Prepares) on Himself into two parts, the first dealing with the rehearsal; and the second, with the actor’s work on himself in the process of embodiment or expression in performance. Stanislavsky himself expressed concern and dissatisfaction at his inability to achieve the desired results of expression, especially in classical plays. Eugene Vakhtangov, while making use of his master’s procedures, had already revised some of Stanislavsky’s formulations. These changes helped Vakhtangov achieve the startling and highly theatrical results upon which his fame rests.” — Lee Strasberg<
The stories we tell our audiences
As actors we tell stories about ourselves. Hopefully you have someone available to you in your work that can see the story you as a person and actor tell, that can help you bridge the gap between you and the story that your character must tell. One evening an actress who I had never worked with came to join the class. She now attends weekly and has grown drastically. During her first evening in class she walked on stage and eventually did a monologue. After the monologue, I had to be very careful and delicate to say what I was going to say. A problem in her instrument had presented itself to me very subtly, in ways not so obvious and apparent but certainly could be a liability for an actor. I looked at the way she dressed, who she made eye contact with and who she didn’t make eye contact with, the changes in her voice at varying moments, and mostly, her strong pleaser energy in which she never really stopped smiling. Besides other signs that informed about her, I had to ask her a personal question in a personal class. Again, I had never spent any time with her prior or had gotten to know her. I asked her if she had grown up without a father or was abandoned by her father.
The actress stared at me in a way that I could not discern was feeling offended or just overall shock. The other students became tense at the sudden directness of the personal question. The actress responded, “How did you know that?” She was in fact abandoned by her father as a child. She was not offended in the least but more surprised how after 10 or 15 minutes I deduced this personal fact and she felt a great deal of trust in working with me thereafter. I expressed my perception because I could see how this aspect of her life influenced the many ways that she responded to people and the world, which could pose as a liability in her scene-work (intimacy, affection, trust of scene partners, trusting men or male scene partners, guilt, behaving and expressing her honest moment to moment feelings, etc…) but that if dealt with, could be turned into an asset through its expression. She would be freer to act and function through changing the ways she relates to the world by changing the way she perceives it. This revealing of ourselves and the character is what we hope the audience takes in and hopefully changes the way they take in the world; and through this art we are moving forward together.
As story-tellers, we must truthfully tell the story to enrich the overall experience in our art, to give our work and purpose a lasting impact. Actors have many obstacles, if they want to be free to act, they must deal with the instrument that goes beyond basic relaxation. Actors must be aware and ask questions to liberate themselves in all of the areas necessary to be an effective actor or experiencer. Actors suffer from self-consciousness or ego issues (and their problems often originate there), traumas, fears, tensions, dependencies, suppressing the expression of the emotion, redirecting what they are actually feeling into more socially-acceptable behaviors, etc… These problems are of the actor and not necessarily problems of the character and will inhibit the actor from accessing rage, vulnerability, elation, passion, enjoyment, comfort, freedom of expression. In contrast to these tensions, blocks, and anxieties, actors can work to achieve permission and trust in their work, entitlement, a belief and confidence in themselves as craftsman and artists: If you know what to do and HOW to do it, then you can indeed feel confidence in a reliable process.
These obstacles to expression are not limited to artists but the entire human-race, and will vary as the manifestations of our behavior are directly related and relative to when, where, and how we are raised: Cultural norms, religious values, family values, school, manners; all such lessons that teach you how to survive in those environments but certainly not how to live on the stage or even in the rest of the world often. Such rules can certainly be found restrictive later on in life. In any profession, people will struggle through business meetings or presentations, executing their ideas, communicating their ideas, making the most of their potential. These instrumental occurrences are not unique to acting, but to human beings and as actors we must BE human beings and experience, not as actors replicating life, but living life.
Auditions, scenes, performances, can all be anxiety provoking to the actor. If we look at what happens to the state of the actor on more of a reductionist level, then we can understand why the actor develops bad-habits or experiences difficulty in breaking them. These situations induce anxiety or a fight or flight response. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is then activated which is responsible for using the body’s resources for energy to either flee or fight the perceived threatening stimulus. Obviously, our instruments are responding to a circumstance where there really is no physical threat or prey in which we would need to use our nutrients, stored energy, release of stress hormones. Our old-brain however does not know this, but we can train our conscious brain to send messages to the old-brain to learn to be more calm and mindful in such situations. Through deep breathing and relaxation, we activate our parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, allowing for resources and energies to be conserved for when we choose to utilize them, such as prior to curtain call or ‘action’ on set.
On this level, we can see how creating an experience can allow for the actor to live on stage and respond to the objects of their attention, rather than literally surviving on stage through habits of old. It is important to note here where our responses, emotional or physical, emanate from. A teacher once asked me if I could be more relaxed during my work, in which I was dealing with a very uncomfortable choice that caused me turmoil emotionally. She could not discern that my tension and physiological responses were coming from the objects of my attention, rather than a manifestation of tension or nervousness that comes from “stage fright” or being watched out of fear of failure and such. Often actors on stage who are expressing anger or frustration are really just transmuting or redirecting their discomfort of being on the spot.
This anger though is then coming from fears and stage fright, not from that which the character is experiencing their anger. Often this outpouring of emotion or anger is also a way to hide the vulnerability the actor feels underneath the of fear of judgement. Therefore, it is a shallow redirection of discomfort and self-consciousness, nothing significant or deeper that would leave a lasting impact. Specificity and truth are what the audience will be affected by, not a veneer of shallow histrionics and melodrama. If your instrument is responding honestly to your work, then that is a justifiable response. Rarely would one be very relaxed or calm when dealing with such an uncomfortable experience in real-life. However, our work should begin with relaxation to give our instruments the ability to create such experiences.
It is important to have an atmosphere that is safe, non-judgmental, and conducive to helping the actor grow and evolve. It is the actor who should dictate that which they are willing to reveal and that which they are not. Commonly, actors will incubate their fears and act in spite of them or attempt to redirect or disguise the fears into facades of pseudo-confidence, or expressing less and trying to hide their uncomfortable state. “The truth shall set you free” is often experienced in which artists feel liberated after given a forum to express themselves constructively and often allows other artists to not feel alone; creating a safe place for the actors to accomplish their ultimate goal: to BE who they are.
The Actors’ Vow
From Elia Kazan
I will take my rightful place on the stage
And I will be myself.
I am not a cosmic orphan, I have no reason to be timid.
I will respond as I feel; awkwardly, vulgarly,
I will have my throat open.
I will have my heart open.
I will be vulnerable.
I may have anything or everything
The world has to offer,
But the thing I need most,
And want most, is to be myself.
I will admit rejection, admit pain, admit shame,
Admit outrage, admit anything and
Everything that happens to me.
The best and most human parts of me are
Those I have inhabited and hidden from
I will work on it.
I will raise my voice.
I will be heard.